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Everyone’s Welcome: Saving Families With Movie Nights And Meetups

Published on 5/29/2019

New York is trying to encourage parents to tap into their own problem-solving skills – and avoid getting enmeshed in the foster care system.

Victoria Castro reads to her son and his friend at the Liberty Family Success Center in Kearny, New Jersey. Some locales are experimenting with “family enrichment centers,” which provide publicly funded, privately run, community-driven support services to neighborhoods in need. The idea is to encourage parents to tap into their own problem-solving skills so that they can become stronger family units — and avoid getting tracked into the child welfare system.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – When it first opened in February, locals viewed it with suspicion. For starters, with its comfy sofas and flat-screen TV, the vibe at “The C.R.I.B.” – aka East New York Family Enrichment Center – is more living room hangout than social service agency. And secondly, in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, longtime residents don’t always view new things as harbingers of good things to come.

People would poke their heads in the door and say, “What are you doing here?”

And every time, Lettice Layne, the center’s director, would respond, “What do you want us to be doing here?”

In time, people stuck around – and brought their kids. One elderly gentleman came every day, camping out in front of the TV for hours, not saying a word. After days, weeks, of this, he spoke up. “My Social Security check didn’t arrive,” he told Layne. “Find out what happened to it.”

Layne, a licensed clinical social worker, did a little happy dance. Finally, the man trusted her enough to let her help him. And that, she says, is the purpose of C.R.I.B., which stands for “Community Resources in Brooklyn.”

“I want to help people how they want to be helped,” says Layne, elegant and willowy with a fluffy Afro puff.

You could call the C.R.I.B., one of three new “family enrichment centers” in New York City, an experiment in community engagement. Here, clients are “community members.” And those community members have a say in everything, from what services to offer, to when to hold family movie nights.

My Social Security check didn't arrive," he told Layne. "Find out what happened to it.

The goal is to break the poverty-related cycle of abuse or neglect that pushes kids into the foster care system. To do so, New York and a handful of other cities are creating drop-in support centers for families in need. There are no caseworkers tracking clients in a database. No court-orders requiring parents to do X, Y or Z – or risk losing their kids. Everything’s voluntary.

The new centers are opening at a time when child welfare officials are placing a greater emphasis on preventing family crises, rather than performing triage after the fact. That approach is reflected in a new federal law, too. In February, President Donald Trump signed into law the Family First Prevention Services Act, which effectively blows up the nation’s often troubled foster care system – the most extensive overhaul of foster care in nearly four decades. This new law codifies the focus on keeping families together – and keeping kids out of foster care.

The family enrichment centers show great potential that they “will provide early support for vulnerable families before they experience a crisis,” according to Allison Blake, a senior fellow with the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the former commissioner for New Jersey’s Department of Children and Families.

The philosophy behind family enrichment centers: Plop them in high-poverty neighborhoods with high rates of involvement in the child welfare system. Offer a “safe space” where parents can come for advice; take part in a men’s support group; take a financial literacy class; get help with housing or writing resumes – or just meet other parents.

“People are more connected now,” says Maria Ducasse, 33, who lives across the street from the C.R.I.B. “I can come in as a mom and talk to other moms, and my 14-year-old can come in, and hang with other teenagers and complain about me.”

“That way we won’t kill each other,” she says, laughing.

Young children hang out at the Liberty Family Success Center in Kearny, New Jersey. The drop-in center offers families free activities ranging from Zumba classes to financial literacy classes to support groups for new moms to supervised playtime for tots.

Keep It Confidential

Over the years, faith-based, privately funded family enrichment centers have popped up around the country. But most serve limited populations. Only a handful of local governments have experimented with these centers, where everyone is welcome.

Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, was the first to try out the model in the 1990s. In 2007, New Jersey became the first – and only – government to institute a statewide network of “family success centers,” which the New York programs are based on.

The state has been working with officials in Washington, D.C., to possibly open family enrichment centers there, too, according to Antonio Lopez, who is the administrator of the office of family support services for New Jersey’s Department of Children and Families.

The centers are always located in homey spots – apartment buildings, houses, storefronts – away from official government buildings or social service agencies.

“We needed to create a place that was warm and welcoming, so people won’t have any stigma walking in,” Lopez says.

“That’s key to developing a trusting relationship. Then they start opening up about what they’re really being challenged with.”

Addressing the Problem

Not everyone is convinced the centers will make a dent in the problems plaguing New York City’s foster care system, which is the subject of a federal lawsuit. Children in the system spend twice as long in custody as children in the rest of the country, according to city records.

“There are many, many families that are not getting the appropriate services,” says Marcia Lowery, a child welfare attorney and the executive director of A Better Childhood, which is representing 19 foster children who are suing the city.

“The centers are a nice idea,” Lowery says, “but they’re not going to address the basic problem.”

The New York centers, which opened this year, are part of a three-year demonstration project. Each center is staffed with a director, one or two parent advocates, and a community liaison, and operates on a $450,000 annual budget, funded by the city.

Family enrichment centers are confidential, which means that families get support without being tracked in the system. Although if staff suspect or witness child abuse, they are mandated to report it to child welfare authorities.

The centers can assist visitors with job training, financial literacy, connections to after-school activities, homework help. And there are support groups and “parent cafes,” facilitated discussions for moms and dads.

The centers are open to the whole community, but they’re truly meant for families who are “one emergency away from a crisis,” Lopez says. “This is all about prevention.”

Before the center even opens, community members are consulted about the services and activities they need, which creates anticipation early on, he says. Once the center opens, word of mouth and social media generate more interest. People drop by and see a host of activities geared to them.

“This isn’t like walking into a social services agency, where they’re trying to see if you deserve to be there,” Lopez says. “We want to attract the people who normally won’t come in until they’re broken.”

The vast majority – nearly 75 percent – of child welfare investigations involve allegations of neglect, rather than physical or sexual abuse. And typically, incidents of neglect have their roots in poverty, says Dana Weiner, a policy fellow at the Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, who has researched how family enrichment centers can best serve their communities.

That means parents might be having a hard time providing their kids with stable housing, food, clothing or heat, she says. For these families, the centers can make a difference.

“It’s a much, much cheaper, more effective way to meet a family’s needs before they become involved in the child welfare system,” Weiner says.

To illustrate this point, the C.R.I.B.’s Layne offers a hypothetical: Let’s say that winter is coming, and Jimmy doesn’t have a coat. If Jimmy goes to school in the cold, and his teachers notice he isn’t wearing a coat, they’re going to call child protective services – and his mom will end up with a case because she didn’t have the money to buy him a winter coat.

The C.R.I.B. can help the mom figure out how to get help finding Jimmy a coat before it’s ever an issue, she says. Or if his behavior is driving his mom nuts, to encourage her to get help. “We’re not going to wait until Jimmy goes to school and says something crazy and all of a sudden you’re mandated to therapy.”

The key philosophy behind the family enrichment centers is that parents ultimately know best, and the centers are just there to help families figure out how to get what they need to live better lives, Layne said.

“People are resourceful,” she says.

“We would like to be the place that’s so comfortable that they’re not afraid to tell us some of the things they probably wouldn’t tell just anybody,” she says. “And by doing so, we’re hoping we will be reducing the connection to child welfare.”

Participation is voluntary, and because families aren’t recorded in the system, it’s hard to know how many have been helped. Each family enrichment center in New York is expected to serve about a thousand families a year, while each of New Jersey’s 56 centers is expected to serve 250 each year, according to Lopez.

One New Jersey showcase is the Liberty Family Success Center in Kearny, a working-class burg just a short train ride from Manhattan. It’s a little bit urban, a little suburban, a onetime mill town with a large population of immigrants from Colombia, Egypt, Peru and Central America.

Liberty occupies the first floor of an apartment building tucked into a commercial strip here. Inside, signs in Spanish and English advertise social services. Preschoolers play in the front of the room with a staffer while Kimberly Martinez, 29, and Victoria Castro, 24, two stay-at-home moms, talk about their growing involvement with Liberty.

When she first came to the center, Castro says, she was at her wits’ end trying to care for her 3-year-old son while her husband worked. “I was just done.”

In the past, she’s used social services such as Medicaid and WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children), but Castro says dealing with the agencies left her feeling like she was just a problem to be solved by cutting a check.

At Liberty, she found friendship with other moms, support and respite from 24/7 child care – as well as an increased appreciation for her own capabilities. She volunteers at the center now.

“I’m a young mom, but I’m still very capable,” Castro says. “I’d like to be looked at with respect. Here, I’m not looked at like a charity or a problem with society. I’m looked at like an asset.”

Welcome to the Parent Cafe

Layne is by training a licensed clinical social worker, but at the C.R.I.B., she taps into her inner community activist. A native New Yorker, she is devoted to her community – fiercely East New York, do or die.

“I don’t see myself as a clinician,” says Layne, the daughter of a Panamanian-born community organizer. “I’d much rather plan a party for you. And while we’re planning the party, let’s talk about what’s going to make you feel better.”

On a recent morning at the C.R.I.B., it’s definitely feeling like a party. A large handwritten sign declares, “Welcome to the Parent Cafe!” In one corner, there’s a catered breakfast, courtesy of Magda’s, the Dominican cafe next door. Old school R&B – Rick James, early Mary J. Blige – streams through the TV. Heads bob to the beat.

The women gathered here are a multicultural collection of ages and accents. They hug each other before settling in for the work at hand: Finishing their training for the Parent Cafe, a national program where trained “peer hosts” lead conversations with other parents.

What happens in the Parent Cafe stays in the Parent Cafe, so cellphones are put away. And for the next three hours, the women practice leading discussions. It feels like part therapy session, part group bonding.

Afterwards, Ducasse steps away to take a call. When she comes back, she’s clearly geeked. A while ago, she had an idea to create a community garden. The C.R.I.B. helped her with the paperwork, and put her in touch with the people she needed to make things happen.

And that call she just took? She just found out that she’d been approved for a plot of land for her community garden.

“I came here lost,” Ducasse says. “This is wonderful.”